Change is overrated -- if it's change from the last eight years of the 1990s.
That was the message former President Bill Clinton kept hammering home yesterday during his first campaign trip for his wife through Western Pennsylvania, reminding voters of the peace and prosperity of his two terms in office and taking aim at the promises of change by her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama.
The former president said Mr. Obama has consistently argued "that anybody who did anything in the 1990s should be eliminated from being president in this decade. ... It just wasn't all that good and we just need to make a whole new beginning.
"Well," Mr. Clinton said to the approval of 2,200 people at Washington and Jefferson College, "I think there's a big difference between the 1990s and this decade, and I think Americans were better off."
Yesterday's remarks provided a clue to how the Clinton campaign will use the former president in Pennsylvania in the six-week run to the April 22 primary. He is popular here, having won the state in 1992 and 1996.
Still biting his signature lower lip at age 61, the former president can and will talk at length about his wife Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's stands on fundamental issues like the economy, fuel prices and foreign policy, and how the challenges were similar to those he faced taking office in 1993. He spent half his time at the senior center fielding detailed questions about health care.
"Having him on stage to deliver [Mrs. Clinton's] message, and explain to people how she will bring about the change she's talking about, is an incredible resource," said Mark Nevins, a Clinton spokesman.
The former president is popular around Pittsburgh, said Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chairman Jim Burn, partially because he "comes from a very tough background, a hard-working family, a struggling family, and there are a lot of struggling families around here."
"People can relate to Bill Clinton because there's a lot of families like Bill Clinton's in Western Pennsylvania."
Not all the talk among voters yesterday was about the economy. There was also a strong vein of foreign policy nostalgia for the years before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The world liked [Mr. Clinton]. That's the most important thing right now," said Pat Carter, 66, of Claysville, as she waited to get into the college event.
"He left the world in better shape," agreed Frances White, 69, who waited three hours in the frigid early morning weather to hear the former president talk.
Early poll results, support from Gov. Ed Rendell and Mr. Clinton's popularity all contribute to Mrs. Clinton's status as the front-runner in the primary. That status is making the Clinton campaign somewhat boastful about her chances in the state -- the nomination "all comes down in no small measure to how she does in Pennsylvania," Mr. Clinton said yesterday -- and driving the Obama camp to play down expectations.
"I would expect that they will win this state," the Obama campaign's communications director, Robert Gibbs, told the Web site Politico. "It is the next state but it is not going to be the determinative state."
The front-runner status may also help keep the headstrong Mr. Clinton in check.
The former president likely hurt his wife's standing among black voters when he compared Mr. Obama's January win in the South Carolina primary to wins there by Jesse Jackson in the 1990s -- leaving the suggestion to some that the senator from Illinois appeals only to blacks, but not the country as a whole.
Since then he has taken a back seat, publicly, in his wife's campaign, and her big-state wins last week in the Ohio and Texas primaries may keep that strategy in place. His wife's campaign isn't worried about him freelancing, Mr. Nevins said.
"I don't think there's any need to. He knows Sen. Clinton better than anyone and he's more capable than anyone -- except Sen. Clinton -- at explaining her plans and her agenda," he said.
Still, he wasn't elected to those two terms in the 1990s by keeping his mouth shut, so who knows? In six long weeks on the campaign trail, anything can happen.
"At the end of the day, everybody knows why he's here," Mr. Burn said. "You never know what he's going to say, which is all the more reason to go and be at these events."
Tim McNulty can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1581. First Published March 12, 2008 4:00 AM